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Done With Debussy
December/January 2016/17

Determinedly disengaged: Claude Debussy, by Marcel Baschet, 1884

In a Jerusalem book store where past lives gather dust I recently found a memoir of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. A survivor of four concentration camps, Frankl wrote a best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which contended that those prisoners who made an effort to understand their situation were more likely to survive than those who acquiesced. The search for meaning is, in itself, the very meaning of existence.

If only this persuasive thesis were applicable to modern music. Among composers of the 20th century and beyond there is an irreconcilable rift between those who believe that every note has relevance to the human condition and those who maintain that music is just notes and combinations of notes, with no broader significance. On the one hand you have Gustav Mahler, who sought revelation in every symphony. On the other is Richard Strauss, who said he couldn’t see why he needed to be redeemed.

The schism runs on between Schoenberg, who weighted every phrase with the burden of history, and his student Webern, who pursued symmetry to the exclusion of all else. It divides Shostakovich, who encoded secret messages in his scores, from Prokofiev, who wrote perfect, sometimes vacant, cadences. At its most extreme, it draws a line between the ethereal works of Pierre Boulez and the earthiness of Luciano Berio, György Ligeti and Leonard Bernstein. There is no middle ground: music either has meaning, or it has none.

All of which explains why, try as I might, I cannot love the music of Claude Debussy. There, I’ve said it. Forget about getting a French passport if Brexit casts me adrift. My Légion d’Honneur is no longer in the post. I may be half-French but I’ll never be a Frenchman because I cannot love Debussy. Mostly, I cannot abide him.

A great composer by the definition that his music is unmistakably his own, inventor of “musical impressionism” and the strongest influence on French music from his day to ours (no Debussy, no Boulez), Debussy fails to stir fever in my veins or conflict in my brain. His music has the intellectual nutrition of a Montparnasse meringue, easily bought, consumed on the spot.

His style emerges, fully formed, in the G-minor string quartet of 1893, where an aggressive opening statement is neither developed nor contradicted but vaguely repeated from various angles and left to shimmer away, a thing of beauty and no depth. The quartet pulses with rhythms Debussy acquired in Russia and plinks with hints of a gamelan he had heard at the Paris Universal Exhibition. Since Impressionism was the order of the day, the work was bracketed with the masterpieces of Cézanne, Pissarro, Monet and Seurat, though lacking their disruptive capacity. It was the only string quartet Debussy ever attempted, a vehicle of convenience to establish his maison de mode.

Breakthrough followed with the 1894 Prelude to a Faun’s Afternoon, a work that lit no fires until Nijinsky choreographed and danced it for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912, causing an erotic sensation that drew shameless condemnation from the bourgeois composer.

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May 23rd, 2018
6:05 PM
I think he's trolling us when he says music has no meaning. OF COURSE it has meaning, just means something different to each one. I also hate Claude "The Pussy" Debussy I just find his music boring especially LA MER. Clair de Lune is amazing though

January 4th, 2017
10:01 AM
Music evokes experiences and emotions; it does not make statements. Most people find Debussy's music to be very evocative. Mahler was a master of the obvious; Debussy preferred understatement. It is true, Debussy had no theory of what music should be. He said, "Pleasure is the rule, you have only to listen." He would have been astounded to be told that he had a moral obligation to explain the human condition to victims of concentration camps. That is the province of religion or politics or philosophy. If Debussy's music is meaningless then so is most aesthetic experience.

Stefan Ehrenkreutz
December 7th, 2016
7:12 PM
"Des pas dans la neige"; "La Cathedrale engloutie", the joy of life expressed in Iberia and the 2nd nocturne for orchestra, the appreciation of, and presence to, existence in "La Mer"--no meaning in Debussy? Simply nonsense! The utter charm of the Prelude to the Afternoon...

Leslie Barcza
December 5th, 2016
9:12 PM
You're entitled to your opinion. I understand your irritation, considering that Debussy's star has been in the ascendancy for the past half century and continues to rise (insert curses!). I can't forget the reductive dismissal of Meyer (Music the Arts & Ideas) who claimed that Beethoven's Ninth is deep while the Prelude to the Afternoon of a faun isn't. Check it out, as i think you'll love his dismissal. I am only bothering to reply because you seem to make an intellectual argument consigning Debussy to the bin (but it's yours alone, not history's). There are two concerns, that i believe fuel your anger, and both are misconceptions. 1) The very popular epithet "musical impressionism" is a misnomer tossed into the academic trashbin decades ago, yet still alive due to the laziness of so many musicians (who practice their violins, maintaining their technique but alas, not progressing beyond what they heard in the conservatory at the age of 13: for example much as i love Peter Oundjian of our Toronto Symphony, he cited the same half-baked concept. I forgive him) It's laziness Mr Lebrecht, but hey, when you're expected to know everything, how can you possible avoid the occasional pratfall?. I don't suppose for an instant that you're going to suddenly "get" Debussy. But don't dismiss him while misunderstanding him. Impressionism is based on an almost extemporaneous approach to the composition of a painting, the roughness of the brush-work being the essence of the term (look it up): which was understood to be unfinished, a mere "impression". It's a feeble analogy to music, given that for all the colours, one doesn't just toss off a sketch employing an orchestra of 100 players. Debussy? he is as spontaneous as one of those 20 second videos showing 10,000 dominoes falling. At times he makes something appear spontaneous, but it's all contrived and very hard to set up. His ideal was the surface beauty of a score by Bach on the page. He used the word "arabesque" to speak of the graphic design of music, not (as some mistakenly assume) in echo of something from Degas. Again, forget the impressionist connection, it's false. 2) later in the essay you focus your anger on "His denial of meaning". I guess you want the music to "do something". I recall Douglas Chambers (a prof in my undergrad) mocking students who were embroiled in discussions of what a poem "means". A poem is a made thing. Its meaning is that it EXISTS. Think of a piece of music or a painting or a poem as a made thing, and yes there is signification, there are meanings we decode. But we err when we stray too far down the pathway requiring art to mean something. The irritating thing of course is that Debussy and Satie and a few others defy classification, loved by classical fans & the unschooled. When i play clair de lune, people still gasp over a tune as simple as something by Mozart or Bach, Lennon or McCartney. I used to resist, to find it suspect. But now i just breathe deeply and let it all go. He doesn't need my defense.

Michael Morse
December 3rd, 2016
9:12 PM
My Dear Fellow, Unintentionally, surely, you've landed up in the same berth as Adorno and Schoenberg. Their anti-Debussyan grumbling is a tad more technically developed, but comes to the same thing. And for them as, sorry, for you, too, that thing is: Debussy is no Beethoven [/Wagner/Mahler]. His music is meaningless, because it doesn't "develop" thematically. De gustibus, and all that. Debussy requires new ears. But if any composer justifies the arrogance of such a demand, it is CD. No feeling? Hommage a Rameau? No meaning? Pelleas, despite the more than slightly ludicrous libretto--which defect, let us not forget, applies in equal measure to much Mozart and all but 2 or 3 Verdi operas, too. No animation? The overwhelming Passepied of the Suite Bergamasque, a noble tribute to music past and a magnificent incarnation of music present. And what of the supreme melodist of L'Apres-Midi, Girl with the Flaxen hair, and the sonata for flute, viola, and harp? There are animadversions we feel that seem entirely reasonable, and gut level, and so justifiable. But the wiser counsel of our souls gnaws away telling us: "it ain't him, buddy, it's YOU what ain't right." Listen to that voice, dear fellow, and trust it..

C.J. Sch¨ler
December 3rd, 2016
8:12 PM
I wouldn't go as far as you in your dislike for Debussy, but I have always found Ravel (whom Stravinsky dismissed as a "Swiss watchmaker") more engaged and engaging. Think of the depth of his response to the First World War: the rage of the Concerto for the Left Hand, the grief of Le Tombeau de Couperin, the sound of a civilisation shattering to smithereens in La Valse… It's often though odd that Vaughan Williams should have gone to study with him, but the two men had more in common than their very different musical styles might suggest. Both served as ambulance drivers in that conflict (what horrors they must have witnessed), and both were deeply marked by the experience.

Scott MacClelland
November 28th, 2016
12:11 AM
Norman, You're hung up on the word 'meaning,' or the denial of it in music by some people and some composers who like to tweak folks who can easily be baited into sending out tweets at 3 a.m. Meaning in this case is like getting a new prescription for your eyeglasses: it's totally subjective as any ophthalmologist will tell you.

Lorna SalzmanA
November 26th, 2016
5:11 PM
If you want "pure" music without "meaning" or "Message", try baroque music: Bach keyboard music is exemplary. Or practically any music that the composer hasn't gussied up with some kind of moral or political lesson. One could argue that Debussy was the only truly avant-garde composer. He opened up form, structure and sound that enabled every composer after him to explore all kinds of new ways of using sound and new ways of structuring music. Without Debussy we might still be hearing post-Elgar and post=Rachmininoff until we went insane. As for "meaning" and "message", any listener can make what he or she wants out of a piece of music but what is truly unlistenable are those pieces where the composer (or his supporters) provides us a note by note exegesis of what the composer "intended". Spare us philosophy, morality, ethics and fairy tales; give us music of craft and invention that stands on its own because it is its own language, not one that has been distorted and re-configured to fit what the Philistine considers "true art".

November 26th, 2016
1:11 PM
Your rejection is as dogmatic as it is incoherent. 1) If Debussy sought to abolish "meaning" in music, why did he, more than any other composer, give titles like 'Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune', 'La Mer', 'La Cathédrale Engloutie', 'Masques' or 'La Boite à joujoux'? No one I can think of brought music and poetry - ie. meaning - closer together than he did. 2) When at the end of his life he tells the young Strawinsky he aims towards "pure music", he was understandingly reacting to the now-tiresome clichéd 19th century Romantic abuse of dramatic, litterary and philisophical associations with music, including his own. Like the new generation which he was remarkably open to, - Strawinsky, Bartok, Shoenberg and others -, he is rediscovering J.S. Bach and finding inspiration the bare-bones timeless architectural qualities of his work. (Are you done with Bach as well? He should be your n°1 evildoer.) 3) Whatever Debussy sought only applied to his own work. As you say, he was not a theoretician. So he is in no way responsable for Boulez or whatever ulterior musical tendency came to pass that you do not like. 4) The selected aspects of his biography that you wish to bring to our attention are of stricty no relation to the quality of his music or lack thereof.

Christopher Morley
November 26th, 2016
12:11 PM
You're fortunate to be in the position where you are free to express your own prejudices. Those of us still accredited to print media need to maintain some pretence of impartiality, even when it's Berlioz.

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